It’s been nearly six years since Atmosphere’s breakout When Life Gives You Lemons, You Paint That Shit Gold in 2008. With a fistful of angst and new-found acclaim, the Minneapolis hip-hop duo of rapper Slug (Sean Daley) and DJ/producer/Steven-Seagal-deadringer Ant (Anthony Davis) drew quick word-of-mouth traction for their cleverly incisive lines, soothing storytelling and frenetically angry beats.
A lot’s changed since then, namely Slug’s noted maturity into fatherhood. Southsiders takes a decidedly calmer approach to public condemnation: just as jaded, but way less robust. Now his anger has mellowed into a sort of acceptance disguising itself as anger, which isn’t really anger, and isn’t really emotional. Has Slug run out of things to complain about?
Atmosphere’s “Kanye West”
Maybe. His storytelling has certainly taken a hit. One of his aces has always been slam-poetic storytelling, often driven by a instrumental piano riff—a form Macklemore adopted and blew up with “Same Love”, and which Slug has previously hit out of the park with contemplations on lost love in “Yesterday”. But Southsiders’ closest addition to the canon is “My Lady Got Two Men”, a bumbling combination of uninspired lyrics and quickly mixed metaphors: “I feel like a doctor, I got a lot of patience/ I cooperated with the operation/ Complications, observation/ Parked in your lot, can I get some validation?” Even the little plot twist at the end, another nod to predecessor “Yesterday”, doesn’t quite match up.
Nor do the metaphors escape the blender. The finale, “Let Me Know That You Know What You Want Now”, is as garbled a bundle of wordsmithery as its name implies: “All city, American built/ A pocketful of cash take care of the guilt/ The crabs all crash in a barrel of milk/ But when they clear the snow I’mma steer the Seville.” Bob Dylan this ain’t.
This isn’t to say Slug’s lost his game entirely. He’s still slamming kids who head out and “just turn up the music and get dumb”, and is as deftly self-deprecating as ever about his past alcoholism (“Been a few years since the last cigarette/ But if you put your finger in the flask, still wet,” he sings on “Arthur’s Seat”, one of the album’s finer tracks).
But their backbone has gotten a little weaker. It’s not fair to blame this entirely on Slug, either—Ant’s subtly effective and affecting beats have long shown off the variety of the DJ’s arsenal. Not so much here. “Arthur’s Song” and “Kanye West” offer up interesting riffs that live up to the atmosphere of the group’s name, but the entire album—and at just shy of an hour, it’s not short—sounds and feels flat.
If the Twin Cities duo want to stay relevant as one of the genre’s leading “intellectual hip-hop artists”, they can’t afford to fall into complacent tropes. Maybe Slug can funnel his angst into his fatherhood and try to create a real change, and heed his own words on “Kanye West”: “Put your hands in the air like you really do care.” If you really do care, Slug, you’ve got to show it better than this.
Written by Michael Fraiman
OurVinyl | Contributor